Discussing Sense8 on an episodic level demands discussion of its production and form. After a single episode, there simply isn’t enough concrete story to discuss on its own terms. And that’s fine. The “sense” part of the title is what’s essential here; Sense8 is a show that wants to start with a luscious visual experience first, attracting interest with its production, before it starts making sense.
And that visual experience is damn impressive. It’s not just the direction, though that’s notable, immediately hitting with a stylized intro filled with religious imagery. It’s what comes next—a credit sequence bouncing all over the world, like a 90-second Baraka. As the episode progresses, even the parts of the story that don’t seem to have any particular point or connection yet, like the Nairobi and Mumbai sequences, seem more potentially intriguing because of the solidity of their locations.
I would be concerned that the dazzling production was a trick if it weren’t for the fact that the Wachowskis were behind the series. Cloud Atlas was a potentially embarrassing gimmick early on, carried by dazzle, but by the end soared into an affecting celebration of humanity. Television’s different, though. Even a long film like Cloud Atlas is still a quarter the length of Sense8, and doesn’t have the easy jump-off points of episode endings.
Thus there’s an added, very television reason to keep watching: a mystery. In many ways, Sense8 has the premise of one of the many post-Lost pseudo-science-fiction flops—say, Flashforward or The Nine. It’s inauspicious, to say the least, to start with Darryl Hannah seeing visions and ranting about what she can and can’t do, to stop or start some event. Most of these bragged about what they could do with the mystery, how that would all pay because of a long-term plan that almost never came to fruition, thanks to the fact that they tended to forget that you need short-term arcs and growth in addition to long-term reveals.
Again, the show’s pedigree still gives me hope. Its writer is J. Michael Straczynski, returning to television after nearly two decades since the end of Babylon 5. B5 was famous for its long-term plan, and was probably the only show to brag about it and largely succeed at pulling it off. But that was based more on JMS’ skill at resolving mysteries and storylines efficiently and effectively. Instead of turning the entire series into a single question dominating everything, he’d resolve those questions (usually before they wore out their welcome) and use the answers to make the next focus.
That’s a good thing for me to keep in mind, because the mystery was the last part of the premiere to hold my interest. The implication at the beginning that there’s some sort of corporate or paramilitary conspiracy about the sensates who can feel each other seems so very played out at every level on television.
On the other hand, the writing, acting, and characterization of most of the various storylines held my attention throughout. Nairobi had almost nothing going for it, but a bus based on a misspelled Jean-Claude Van Damme joke was a pleasant dash of personality. “Van Damn is a man! He doesn’t need gadgets to fight. He fights with his fists and with his heart!” I also very much enjoyed the Spanish actor sequences, which were very minor here, but thoroughly entertaining.
Not all of it worked. The Mumbai sequence of a woman who doesn’t want to marry for love didn’t have time to develop beyond the rather dull cliché, which I hope gets rectified quickly. Sense8’s eight-people-worldwide premise could easily have descended into stereotype, but characters like an Icelandic woman DJ in London or an African bus driver quickly move away from overdone stories in their locations. Nomi, the trans woman, has a bit of a problem there, as one of her first scenes involves her being called a slur and confronted by a trans-exclusive feminist—her identity, not her character, becomes the story. A major danger for a show with such distinct divisions is that some of them can become anchors if others are significantly better, like how everything on Game Of Thrones that’s not in King’s Landing feels lesser.
The big question I have is what this is all in service of. Is Sense8 about the mystery, and the characters’ backgrounds will feed into that? Or is it about the characters, and the mystery a premise to demonstrate their interconnections? Or, to put it another way, is this leading toward a Cloud Atlas-style resolution for individuals or are they all going to get together physically for an explosive finale? And my biggest concern is that, given the Netflix model of having an entire TV series in the can before it gets released, it may have the wrong answer and take too long to self-correct, unlike the conventional TV structure where it’s possible to get feedback and course-correct.
I’m also interested in how Sense8 approaches its episodic structure. While JMS brags about how much more it’s like a movie than television, his background in Babylon 5 (and comics, to some extent) suggests that breaking him out of the episodic structure may be difficult. B5 was an incredibly serialized show, far ahead of its time, but it also worked entirely within a fairly rigid television structure of 22 42-minute episodes per season, each following a set dramatic arc. And it’s not like the interweaving of physically disconnected areas through a single story is rare either, after The Wire and in a world where Game Of Thrones is one of the most popular shows in the world.
With that in mind, I found the ending of “Limbic Resonance” fascinating. The character we spent the most with in the episode was probably Riley, the Icelandic DJ. A speech about her being an emotionally “exposed nerve” from a drug dealer was probably the longest monologue in the episode and, at the time, I thought it was largely bullshit from an older man to an attractive younger woman. But after a shootout that killed everyone in the room but her ended the episode, I started to wonder about the meaning. Was this just the earliest climactic event to keep people’s interest for the next episode? Or was it a clue—that the drug dealer was a sensate like Nomi, and that the special drug he held was somehow related to the story.
For now, I think that’s enough—by the end I was successfully enough engaged in the feel, story, and characters of the show that its final scene felt like more than just an empty marker in a 10-hour movie. For a structurally ambitious show like that, that’s a good enough start.
- I’m going to try to avoid doing as much JMS watching and comparing as I want to, given my Babylon 5 love, but well, it’ll happen. Lines like, “She can spin. Period.” are traditionally earnest-but-awkward JMS liberalism, updated for 2015!
- “What? I’m sorry, are we going off-script?” Great moment—illustrating that the show also has some humor.
- “She’s never gonna win. Her eyes are too close together.”
- Another aspect of the Riley scenes: Earnest drug use expanding the mind seems like a Wachowski thing that’s rarely seen on television. Of course, if it’s a plot point, that novelty is lessened.
- “Of all the partners, I end up with the Mulder wannabe.”
- The schedule for these reviews is going to be Monday-Wednesday-Friday, I believe at 2 p.m. Central.
- Since everyone’s on a different schedule for watching this, if you want to comment about parts of the show ahead of the reviews, please mark it with a spoiler warning.